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'Nowhere' is a scary place for school

If you were 13, impressionable, and jittery about high school, the new teen drama ''South of Nowhere" might make you pine for a faraway wilderness school. There, all you'd have to worry about would be bears.

High school, here, looks far more frightening: a place where your chance of getting slammed into a locker stands at about one in three, where the cheerleading captain channels Heather Locklear circa ''Melrose Place" and the dialogue speeds by so quickly that Aaron Sorkin could barely keep up.

This all, of course, in the name of ''authenticity."

''South of Nowhere," the tale of three Ohio siblings transplanted to a public school in Los Angeles, is the latest original offering from The N, MTV Networks' nighttime channel for teens. The stated mission of The N -- notwithstanding the reruns of ''Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" -- is ''to be the authentic voice of teens."

But what makes a show authentic? Yes, it's true that today's teens grapple with sex, drugs, alcohol, race, and identity, that high school, oftentimes, can feel like hell. Still, ''South of Nowhere" is to high school what ''Oz" was to prison. There's something about the relentless pace, the pile-on of woes, that makes the whole enterprise teeter on self-parody.

And in contrast to, say, ''The O.C.," where the melodrama is pulpy and self-mocking, ''South of Nowhere" treats itself like serious business: earnest, dark, and didactic. The N is even promoting a ''parent discussion guide" on its website, though it's likely that most discussions would begin with ''In no way are you wearing an outfit like that to school."

Creator Tom Lynch, a veteran kids' and tweens' producer, takes pains -- a few too many of them -- to show he's upending assumptions. The Carlin family moves from Ohio to Los Angeles because of mom's job. (She's an ER doctor with conservative values; Dad's a hippier-dippier social worker.) One of the three kids, adopted Clay, is African-American, but the white brother is the star point guard. The kids are hardly angels, but they always say grace before meals.

Still, the show leaps right into the old teen-show convention that new kids are always in peril. Of course, Spencer (Gabrielle Christian) the joins cheerleading squad, which engages in more camera-friendly bumping, grinding, and belly-baring than its Ohio counterpart. Of course, she and the cute basketball star lock eyes in an insta-connection. Of course, the star's girlfriend is the cheerleading captain, who seems to have gotten her diva training from J.Lo.

Meanwhile, mild-mannered Clay (Danso Gordon) happens to defend the wrong girl and gets, yes, slammed into a bank of lockers. And before long, cocky Glen (Chris Hunter) gets into his first locker-room tussle.

Even in the hourlong pilot that airs tonight at 8:30 -- the rest of the episodes will last 30 minutes -- the show takes pains to introduce as many hot-button issues as possible. Spencer questions her sexuality. Clay grapples with his racial identity. (In Ohio, it seems, he was only vaguely aware that he's black.) We get hints of teen pregnancy, absentee parents, racist cops, homophobia.

The production values are slick, the shots drenched in a dreamy California haze. But the characters are as predictable as casting for the ''Real World" has become.

The N's clever promotions for ''South of Nowhere" contrast it with the network's cult hit, the Canadian import ''Degrassi: The Next Generation." This show, too, puts its expansive cast through a paddle-line of social issues. But the pacing is a little more relaxed -- one Major Teen Issue per epsiode, two tops -- and the characters feel more like people than plot vehicles. Compared to Los Angeles's King High, Degrassi Community School feels a little less fearsome and a little more real.

It's the difference between Canada and LA, perhaps. Out in La-La Land, some production executives must believe that slick equals authentic. It's unclear whether kids from Ohio, or Massachusetts, would agree.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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